The following post first appeared on The Crayon Files, the blog of my friend, fellow author and Thai-phile Caron Eastgate Dann. Caron is a former journalist and it shows in the interesting questions she put to me.
I’ve always wondered why the most dreadful crime, murder, is attractive to audiences, whether readers or TV/film viewers. None of us would want to have to deal with a murder in our own family, yet so many of us love reading about it.
This carries over to real life stories as well. When I was at journalism school in New Zealand, I did some work experience at a radio station in Auckland. One morning, the news editor came in rubbing his hands in glee: “There’s nothing like a good homicide to start the day,” he said.
I love a good murder mystery on page and screen as much as anyone else, though I don’t like too much graphic description. I wouldn’t describe myself as a devotee of the murder mystery genre particularly: but when I looked at my book diary for last year, I discovered that 50% of the novels I read in 2013 were, in fact, murder mysteries.
One of the writers I follow is the Melbourne-based novelist Angela Savage, whose blog you can access here. I started reading her books when her first Jayne Keeney, P. I. novel, Behind the Night Bazaar, came out in 2006. Anyone who knows me also knows that reading books about Thailand is my passion (and I’ve also written two myself). When I heard that a novel set in Thailand had won the 2004 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript, I couldn’t wait for it to come out. It didn’t disappoint, and I have eagerly awaited each new book in the series since then. Now there are three, with the publication of The Half-Child (2010) and The Dying Beach (2013).
Last year, through the magic of social media, Angela and I became friends, and we’ve met several times to chat about reading, writing and publishing. We have also discovered that we have at least two other friends in common, and were even invited to the same New Year’s Eve party! Small world, indeed.
Angela kindly agreed to take time out from her extremely busy schedule to answer some questions for this blog. I think you’ll find her answers most interesting, even if you haven’t yet read her novels.
1. Why are so many readers fascinated by the crime of murder?
Angela: “Agatha Christie suggests there is an instinctive human need that is satisfied by terror, and Stephen King calls fear the ‘finest emotion’. Murder has always been part of the great narratives, from the ancient Greek myths and Chinese ghost stories, to the Norse sagas and Shakespearean tragedies. In these forms as in crime fiction, we get to experience our fear of death—especially sudden and violent death—through the safety of stories.”
2. You are familiar with many parts of Asia, so why did you choose Thailand as the setting for your books?
“Of all the places I’ve lived in Asia, Bangkok is the only location I could feasibly base my expatriate private detective character. I needed a city large and liberal enough for a farang like Jayne Keeney to fly beneath the radar. This could never happen in communist countries like Laos or Vietnam, where I also lived; and Cambodia in the 1990s was simply too dangerous for a lone female PI of any nationality to hang out her shingle.”
3. Although Thailand is one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations, it is a more difficult location to use in novels—many more best sellers are set in other parts of Asia, such as China and Japan. Why is this?
“That’s a good question. It strikes me that both China and Japan were subjected at one time or another to occupation by Western powers, making them perhaps more ‘known’ to Western writers than Thailand, which has never been colonised by the West. But this is pure hypothesis on my part. I’d love to know others’ thoughts on this.”
4. This is one of the reasons I was so delighted when I heard an Australian novel set in Thailand had won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript in 2004. What effect did this prize have on your life as a writer?
“The Victorian Premier’s Award proved to be my pathway to publication. A member of the judging panel was at the time a senior editor at Text Publishing and she made an offer on the manuscript following the awards night. It took 18 months and another four drafts, but the manuscript was eventually published as Behind the Night Bazaar in 2006. I’ve since published two more novels in the Jayne Keeney PI series, The Half-Child in 2010 and The Dying Beach in 2013.”
5. Your books have a lot of integrity. You don’t buy into the usual stereotypes. There are no excuses for and no glamour in the drug or prostitution trades, for example, in your books. Has your work for aid agencies been influential in the themes of your books?
“Thank you for those compliments, Caron. It means a lot to me as I my writing is motivated in large part by a desire to challenge the usual stereotypes. While mindful of debates about voice appropriation and writing about other cultures, I try through my writing to rise to the challenge Edward Said put forward in 1994’s Culture and Imperialism: ‘to think concretely sympathetically, contrapuntally, about others…not trying to classify them or put them in hierarchies, above all, not constantly reiterating how ‘our’ culture or country is number one (or not number one, for that matter).’
“To answer your question, yes, my work for aid agencies has been influential in the themes of my books. In Behind the Night Bazaar, for example, I gave Jayne’s Canadian friend Didier my previous job as a HIV/AIDS educator. The Half-Child drew on the experience of expatriate volunteers I met in Asia who’d worked in local orphanages. And the environmental themes in The Dying Beach rely heavily on my partner’s experience working for an environmental advocacy organisation based in Thailand.
“But my interest in Asia and the politics that underpin my novels predate my career as an aid worker. Indeed, I was drawn to international development as a way to nurture those passions. Nowadays I nurture them through my writing.”
6. What can we expect next from Jayne Keeney and Rajiv Patel? Please tell me they get married!
“As if I’d let slip a spoiler like that! That said, I do have long-term plans for Jayne and Rajiv—which is ironic, seeing as how before I wrote him into The Half-Child, I told someone in response to an interview question that Jayne would never have a partner.”
7. Is there any question you wish interviewers would ask you, but they never do? (If there is, please write an answer to it, too!)
“Having just read Stephen King’s On Writing, I’m tempted to quote Amy Tan and say, ‘No one ever asks about the language.’ But that’s not entirely true. I do get asked about my use of Thai language and idioms. I was also asked recently about my favourite thing I’d written. I’m still searching for the answer to that one.
“I have to say you’ve asked some great questions in this interview, Caron, enabling me to touch on topics that I rarely get to talk about. Thanks for that.
“Last year I was on a panel at the Brisbane Writers Festival called ‘Scene of the Crime’, one of several similar sessions I’ve been part of over the years in which crime writers talk about place and setting in their work. The session chair kicked off with an excellent question about why it is we seem to talk about location in crime fiction more than any other genre. My response was: ‘Because it prevents us from having to talk about the crimes.’ Everyone nodded, then went back to talking about place and setting.
“To paraphrase Amy Tan, no one ever asks about the crimes.
“I would love to talk more in interviews and on panels about the crimes in crime fiction. Why do authors choose to write about specific crimes? How do their theories or perceptions of crime and criminality underpin their work? To what extent does the author see crime in terms of individual morality/psychology versus system failure?
“I definitely fall into the latter camp. I studied criminology as an undergraduate and came to understand crime in terms of various systems failure: in economics, education, mental health, etc. But given the popularity of serial killers and psychotics in crime fiction, I suspect I’m in the minority in this regard. Still, I’d jump at the chance to have the debate.”